The Department of Government
The Department of Government

The Evolution of Punctuated Equilibrium

Fri, June 12, 2009

By Sam Workman

In 1993, the Department of Government's own Bryan Jones, along with collaborator Frank Baumgartner, penned the first edition of Agendas and Instability in American Politics. The first edition displayed thinking both expansive and all but unparalleled on the ways in which agenda setting helps us understand the connections between stability and change in policymaking; the connections between the study of institutions in American politics and policy change in the study of public policy; and, perhaps most importantly, began to lay the foundations for connecting micro-decision foundations to macro-political and policy dynamics.

The University of Chicago Press recently released the second edition of Agendas and Instability, and the volume is peculiar among second editions of books. This is illustrated by a story I am somewhat fond of telling. At a meeting of the American Political Science Association a couple of years ago, Bryan was asked about the future of punctuated equilibrium (the animating feature of Agendas and Instability). Bryan responded by noting that there was no future in punctuated equilibrium if it did not continue evolving. Judging Bryan's work by his own criteria recommends the second edition of Agendas very highly. The second edition shows the same concern for explaining policy dynamics, but includes what is, now, state of the art thinking on American institutions, federalism, the media, and interest groups. Notable among this group is the integration of work on the U.S. Congress that challenges our ways of understanding how institutions approach the policy agendas they confront, and how this affects both policy and institutional change.

Finally, note that this comes from someone well-acquainted with Bryan's work. The fact that he can still impress me says much about the quality of the second edition.

Samuel Workman is project coordinator of the Policy Agendas Project. He joins the Department of Government faculty next year as assistant professor.

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